“Our lives are made up of coming together and going apart. And navigating and negotiating those movements, no matter which way we’re headed. Isn’t that what we mostly do and think about and fear and need to practice?” One of you shared this insight with me this week. I thought, “Yes, that’s very wise.”
It could have referred to our more integrated periods and other times when we’re more scattered, even at loose ends. But the specific reference was about finding ourselves surrounded by, enveloped in others… or finding ourselves all alone.
“My family adjusted to my absences and learned that spaces in our togetherness made room for more relished time together. And I claimed the space to be all I can be.”
I saved this quote from a reflection by the poet Emma Lou Thayne. And her title, “Learning to Go Away” grabbed me too.
I often get anxious about departures. I make myself feel, before I can leave, I should get everything done I haven’t gotten done for months. And, when not surprisingly I’m not ready at the appointed time, I end up leaving late, in a bad mood, wondering why I ever thought it would be a restful or renewing to get away.
Maybe my struggle is why I love this quote from Rabbi Tarfon, an early rabbinic sage: “It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” There’s permission in that, grace really: just because I don’t finish something, it doesn’t mean that my effort isn’t important.
Still I struggle! When the kids were little, Miriam would just tell them as we were getting in the car to go away, “Don’t say anything until we get at least an hour from home; by then, he’ll be fine, even feeling free.”
My family, unlike Thayne’s, never had to learn to accept any artistic or long-stretch sabbaticals. I don’t want to add extra departures to my life.
I did travel an awful lot as the Regional Conference minister. I remember one horrible communication lapse. I called Miriam one Friday afternoon, and when she asked, “What time will you be home tonight,” I had to respond, “I’m at a meeting in Watertown all weekend, Mir.” I was forthrightly reminded, “Michael, we are raising two children together.”
And if my family of creation were to think deeply, honestly, they might admit, though they knew I loved and was committed deeply to my life with them, I always maintained a certain, how should I say it?, emotional independence.
Thayne’s quote struck me, though, because in time I had to learn to live alone. The boys grew up, and Miriam and I separated. At first, I feared being alone. I felt unmourned and adrift.
But I figured it out. What choice did I have? In fact, I came to see, that even in the midst of all the relations and craziness of many interactions that feel more natural and comfortable to me, I have always found ways to carve out space for myself.
My friend and colleague Carol had a print named “Before Dawn.” It read: “I always liked the time before dawn when there’s no one around to tell me how I’m supposed to be. Then it’s easier to remember who I am.” She gave me a copy for my 50th birthday. It’s on the wall in my middle room. The sentiment rings truer as I get older and wake up earlier.
I am learning to appreciate the need for and the opportunities of time alone. And that leaves me cherishing relationships and togetherness more as well. I’m paying more attention to the movements and various emotions of moving toward and apart.
Still I was struck last night at Jackie’s sister’s viewing. A woman named Marlene (the same name as Jackie’s sister who passed) said to me, “Now, when I come to funerals, I always sort of wonder, when will mine be? I know it’s coming. At my age, it can’t be that far.”
Psalm 121 is a song of ascents. I lean on the final verses: “God will watch over your life; the Lord will watch over your coming and going, both now and forevermore.”
I am obviously thinking of all this because I’m about to go away from my church family for a month. But I’m not the only one experiencing departures, reunions, loneliness and crowds, movements towards and retreats away. There are as many ways for people to go away as to gather. And we can find ourselves facing, fearing, learning, cherishing either or both aloneness and togetherness.
You’ve heard me say this before, but I love Edwin Friedman’s little formulation: Self-delineation without cut-offs. What he’s aiming us toward is being able — in all this coming and going — to draw the boundaries between ourselves and others clearly, comfortably without having to enact any permanent exiles or withdrawals. Yes, it’s easier said than done. But isn’t that what we can learn if we pay more attention to everyone’s comings and goings?
Implicit in those boundaries are both a celebration when we are together, and understanding that we need to be apart, even when we need to give ourselves space to grieve a loss.
See you in church,